NASA's just carried out a successful experiment with its GROVER robot on the icy slopes of wildest Greenland. The doughty little machine survived temperatures as chilly as minus 30 Celcius in its mission to analyze the snow and ice.
Most amazingly, the robot was not built by NASA smarty-pants. Instead, it was created by students who were part of NASA's engineering summer boot camps at Goddard Space Flight Center. Think about your summer vacations back when you were a student. Did you put together something as impressive as a fully-autonomous NASA-grade planetary rover?
One of the students, Gabriel Trisca, has been involved with GROVER since the beginning. In the summer of 2010, he was part of the group that pitched an autonomous polar robot to NASA glaciologist Lora Koenig (who would become an adviser on the project). With all-day sunlight, a solar-powered rover would be more efficient at detecting Greenland's melt layer than traditional methods that use radar from snowmobiles, airplanes, or satellites.
"Seeing GROVER disappear in the horizon while aligning itself with the next checkpoint is definitely the most rewarding sight that I've [experienced] as a software developer," Trisca, a graduate student at Boise State University, told Fast Company. "One of the big differences between writing software for a financial company and working on a robot is that once you push your code and run, you will see tracks turn, you will get immediate feedback," she added. "It's like seeing a baby make its first steps."
Though GROVER passed its first Arctic test, researchers will continue to make improvements to add a comprehensive diagnostic system, make the components more serviceable, and include built-in redundancy for crucial components. They will continue to test GROVER's software and mechanics until the winter.
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